Monthly Archives: December 2012

Sentences

The art of writing sentences commands highest respect. It’s complicated. It requires attention to word choice, grammar, metaphor, and clarity. This week I’m proofing my novel manuscript (now in the queue for e-book formatting) and, sadly, I’m finding sentences I wish I hadn’t written. Improving them takes my deepest care and running my brain on all cylinders.

The quest to write original, structurally interesting sentences puts me in mind of the elegant writer Harriet Doerr, author of Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora. Her prose flows like the smoothest river, and yet I read that she too was challenged by sentence construction. In one interview, she called the endeavor of writing good sentences “hopeless.” And this from the woman who was an excellent wordsmith, who opened Ibarra with the lovely, “Here they are, two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau.”

Her work shows no chisel marks, and yet we know she was a sculptor of words who sometimes had to labor hard over the stone.

A friend and writing colleague of mine put it this way, as we sat with his draft manuscript searching for a way to improve a sentence that wouldn’t cooperate. “I know how I want it to read,” he said. “I just wish I were smarter so I could make it happen.”

His words come back to me again and again, as I find sentences in my novel that I’m amazed I wrote. I hardly recognize them. They seem to have come out a place in me that wasn’t fully conscious. How else would I allow something so boring as “Loneliness cut me like a knife” to find its way into my book? Or “Pool balls clicked at the table before the juke box came to life with a tune he didn’t know.” I only need to let my hand fall randomly on any page to find such gems.

The manuscript in which sentences such as, "Loneliness cut me like a knife" have been found.

The manuscript in which sentences such as “Loneliness cut me like a knife” have been found.

It’s a never-ending challenge, this labor in service of the good sentence. The only way I know to get better at it, like anything we wish to master, is to practice every day.

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Meme

My good friend and colleague Lillian Howan, author of The Blue Novels, invited me to participate in The Next Best Thing meme. I’m to answer 10 questions about my new book, Junction, Utah, which will be out in early 2013. I’m also to select five writers (with new releases or projects in progress)  to carry forward the meme torch.

The five I’ll be asking are:

Lin Marie de Vincent
Ashia Lane
Karen Laws
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Kathryn Wilder

I can’t wait to hear what they each have to say. As for my own meme:

(1) What is the working title of your book?

Junction, Utah.

( 2) Where did the idea come from for your book?

My book is a drama set in the American West with a romance between two culturally diverse individuals at its heart. The need to connect to community and place motivate the protagonist, the nomadic river guide Madeline Kruse.

The story line began forming in my mind beginning in 1974, when the commercial river company that employed me sent me to northeastern Utah to raft the Green and Yampa Rivers. Our river crew worked in Dinosaur National Monument half the season, then moved to Moab in southern Utah to work the last half on the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. I was the only woman on the team—that simple fact set me apart on every river we navigated and small town we inhabited.

Utah became my home base for two decades. I was intrigued by its difference from where I grew up on the West coast, and the open spaces acted as a salve for my heart. I lived and worked outside of Dinosaur, and I spent time in Salt Lake City between seasons. While in Utah, especially in the rural areas, I met people who formed the basis for my characters in Junction. I recognized traits in the culture that my parents had valued so highly in the neighborhoods where they raised us outside Portland, Oregon: friendly neighbors, tight-knit community, nature at hand, lots of family around. To me, Dinosaur felt like a place time had passed over.

Being a geologist, though, I recognized the signs of coming change even back then: the seismic crews that explored the backcountry for oil, the traces of debris we’d see of their work in remote places, the roughnecks from all over the world coming into isolated towns with cloistered populations. The setting of the book in a place that’s changing due to national demand for energy is key to the story.

(3) What is the genre of your book?

Literary fiction.

(4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

I love this question, and it’s one I’ve entertained over many years with little resolution! I’m less familiar now with actors who are capable of playing these parts than I was when I started, but here goes:

Madeline Kruse (protagonist): Ellen Page or Keira Knightley or Carey Mulligan

Chris Sorensen (love interest): Zac Efron

Luke Sorensen (brother of love interest): Chris Hemsworth

Ruth Kruse (protagonist’s mother): Blythe Danner

Danny Stack: Jonah Hill

Cookie Friedman: Amy Adams or Emma Stone in a dark wig!

And of course I’d like a bit part, perhaps the postmistress or a river runner cruising by in a boat in the background!

(5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Nomadic raft guide Madeline Kruse must overcome obstacles both inside and out to save the threatened wilderness important to her livelihood and to find love and her place by the river.

(6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by vanHaitsma Literary: vanhaitsmaliterary.com.

( 7) How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It started as a long short story in a collection completed in 1993—I really look at that as the first draft of Junction, even though I’d begun pieces of it much earlier. Writing the collection took the better part of two years. But I was also raising a daughter by myself, completing my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and working part-time at an environmental consulting firm, so it’s hard to say how much concentrated writing time I focused on that one story in those two years.

( 8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver is similar to Junction in that it’s a love story with an ecological twist set in a small community. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner has lots of moving parts and environments, and Junction has those, too. Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich tells a very human story against a big backdrop and important historical time; Junction does, too. A River Runs through It is a tale of family pulled in different directions, and Junction has that element as well. Cold Mountain employs an iconic landmark as a monument throughout, and Junction uses the Green River similarly. These are all works I admire, and they comprise part of the literature I sought to enter with Junction.

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The Green River in northeastern Utah

(9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The beauty and importance of wild rivers and wilderness. Especially in these times when our disconnection from the land helps to create a national crisis of disenfranchisement from compassion and empathy, as well as puts our planet in peril, writing story that connects us to place and community is one of the highest acts I believe we can aspire to. I didn’t realize when I started this project what this belief would do to my life in terms of commitment and focus, time away from my daughter and husband, and financial sacrifice, but I still believe it was an important task to undertake.

(10) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you’ve ever run a river, you’ll enjoy the whitewater scenes in Junction. You’ll also get to step into small-town Utah, as well as southern Oregon, where Madeline’s mother lives. I lived or worked in every setting in the book, except for Landstuhl, Germany, for which I had to rely on first-hand accounts from friends and colleagues who’d visited there. When I started Junction, I hadn’t been to Europe, but a trip courtesy of my sister Jennifer during a break in the writing helped me add realistic detail to those scenes.

Another thing that’s interesting about this project is how much the world has changed since I began telling this story—and how much that I foresaw has come true. Intensified oil exploration in Utah has become a reality, down to the details of its threat on national parks and other protected lands. The United States stepped up its military involvement in Iraq, also important to the plot and expected by Madeline. September 11 occurred, and although that was nothing I could have anticipated, it deeply affects a key character, U.S. Marine Luke Sorensen, as well as all the families in the book. Water as a resource has become more debated and demanded, too, as predicted by a leading character, and its interplay with oil drilling matters greatly to the plot. The world scene weaves like a web through the story—demonstrating that even those living and working in a remote valley, seemingly removed, are connected to all of us, everywhere.

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Wonder

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
― Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Confluence

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Violence

Violence is the question. What’s the answer?

Whether by guns or other means, violence is in our blood. It’s in our legacy of enslavement, domination, and terror. It’s in our treatment of those over whom we presume we have power. It’s in our media, politics, parenting.

It’s not that we’re surprised when the gun turns back on ourselves, because violence is a deep-rooted national wound. Still it horrifies us and rends the fabric of our well being. We are steeped and steeped again in profound sorrow.

Love is the answer. Love and nature. The child who grows up with at least one loving parent and access to the wild outdoors is likely to exhibit values of caring, community, and empathy. From “Ecopsychology,” in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecopsychology#cite_note-7):

“Nature heals” is one of the oldest therapeutic dicta. Ecopsychologists are finding new ways to apply that ancient insight. Over a century ago, Emerson lamented that “few adult persons can see nature.” If they could, they would know that “in the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace or calamity . . . which nature cannot repair.”

Authors to read on the healing power of nature: E.O. Wilson, Richard Louv, Theordore Roszak. And Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Ellen Meloy, Gretel Ehrlich. There is more work to do than simply going to the woods to heal. But it’s a start, and it’s one every child needs to know.

Sitka Sound, Alaska

Sitka Sound, Alaska

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Winter

In winter, Sonoma Valley sometimes gets too misty to show much definition–the oaks barely come out of the gloom, the hills don’t break into their usual imbricated rows.

“Cataloochee, the Cherokee word was. Meaning waves of mountains in fading rows.” — Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain.

There was no cataloochee, or imbrication, today. There were only drapes of lichen hidden in the forest, enveloped in the finest rain–so fine you’d be tempted to go out without your umbrella, and then come home soaked.

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On Lake Suttonfield, lines of male mergansers swam along shore opposite the flocks of females. A grebe didn’t dive when it saw us, but sank rear first and submerged completely. He re-emerged to resume diving normally. There were buffleheads, mallards, an American wigeon. And a complete absence of other hikers.

Winter solitude–
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.
–Basho

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Cooking

Here are a few things I learned during a cooking lesson from Sonoma chef Paul Poumirau. Paul used to own Miel, a fabulous French restaurant in Glen Ellen, California. He’s an amazing chef and excellent teacher, with an innate sense for food. He shared these fundamentals of creating great cuisine. I couldn’t help thinking that we writers and artists can take a page from his book.

1. Mis en place — literally means “everything in its place.” Before beginning your work, make sure the proper tools are set out just as you’ll need them later, when you’re in the middle of three things at once.

2. Use fresh ingredients — directly from the garden is best. For the writer this might mean writing down new ideas as they come, before they’re wilted or forgotten.

3. Make the time — great creations take time and patience. Paul’s 90-minute cooking lesson stretched to 3 hours. Partway in, he asked, “Do you have time?” Because the meal simply required it. We had to slow down and pay attention to everything–every flavor, every texture, every aroma. Every metaphor, every sentence, every page.

4. Practice makes more perfect — with experience, it gets easier to whip those mushrooms around in roux-thickened sauce. (Paul flips the sweating vegetables in the pan one handed. I dodged in case something flew out over the rim. Of course nothing did.) Similarly the muse gets used to showing up at our desk the more often we go there ourselves.

5. Enjoy the fruits of your labor — you might as well cook what you like to eat, because there’s going to be a lot of it as you practice! So too you should write what you like to read. You may be stuck somewhere with only your own book for company. Make it a good one.

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Watershed

I learned today that my novel Junction, Utah, won’t be out until January. I was hoping 2012 would be a watershed year–one in which I completed this long-running project and felt truly free to ease into the next.

Sometimes we forget where we are while we’re going where we think we’re going. It’s been such a long haul writing a novel and getting it ready for publication that I haven’t often looked up to see the trees beyond my own little forest. Knowing I needed to LOOK at something besides the page, I grabbed my camera and stepped out into the watershed where I work much of the time, Sonoma Valley.

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California toyon with red berries

Here are just a few pictures I snapped while enjoying the December afternoon and forgetting about deadlines and completions.

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Old vineyard in the afternoon

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Ho ho ho

The watershed has to be in ourselves, no matter what the publication schedule or feeling of satisfaction that comes with crossing a finishing line. We’re always working, deadlines or no. Getting outdoors to see what inspires us helps us keep the faith.

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Desolation

Researching Junction, Utah, with the support of the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers (http://www.ellenmeloy.com/), heightened my awareness of the controversies inherent in government agency oversight of public lands in the Uintah Basin, northeast Utah. This New York Times article sums up the oil-drilling scene in that state very well:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/28/us/politics/bureau-of-land-managements-divided-mission.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

It’s a conflict between short-term prosperity for some and long-term preservation of a universally important wilderness.

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Petroglyphs in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Panels like these can be fractured and destroyed by the seismic activity related to oil exploration.

Those of us who love the basin for its wildness and solace, qualities we despair over losing in the West, know that our thirst for oil threatens these life-saving elements of the outdoors.

I began work on Junction decades ago to use story to bring light to these little-known, endangered places. My work progressed slowly as I struggled with learning the novel form, but the book is scheduled for release within weeks. Today, in 2012, the controversies on those public lands are better known and, yes, even written about in journals like the New York Times. 

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